April 13, 2017


Sullivan: Songs. Mary Bevan, soprano; Ben Johnson, tenor; Ashley Riches, bass-baritone; David Owen Norris, piano. Chandos. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Nadia Boulanger: Songs; Works for Piano, for Cello and Piano, and for Organ. Nicole Cabell, soprano; Alek Shrader, tenor; Edwin Crossley-Mercer, baritone; Amit Peled, cello; François-Henri Houbart, organ; Lucy Mauro, piano. Delos. $24.99 (2 CDs).

     Let it be said immediately that these are specialty items, fascinating in their way for revealing sides of these composers that will be quite unfamiliar to most listeners – yet in both cases revealing rather too much and, if anything, confirming that the careers for which Sir Arthur Sullivan and Nadia Boulanger were far better known are ones at which they were in fact far better.

     Sullivan’s 14 collaborations with W.S. Gilbert are the works for which he is justifiably famed, even though he wrote quite a few other stage works (the grand opera Ivanhoe; the late and rather odd The Beauty Stone; two even later operas, The Rose of Persia and The Emerald Isle, both to libretti by Basil Hood; as well as ballets and incidental music). Sullivan also wrote choral, orchestral, chamber and church music – and a great number of songs. The exact number is rather hard to determine, since he sometimes offered the same music with different words (e.g., “In the Summers Long Ago” is also “My Love Beyond the Sea,” and “Bride from the North” is also “Bride of the Isles” and “The White Plume”). Furthermore, Sullivan’s songs sometimes occur within theatrical works: “Love Laid His Sleepless Head” in The Merry Wives of Windsor, for instance, and “Little Maid of Arcadee” in Thespis. So it is hard to know whether to deem them songs or parts of a larger theatrical production. Be all that as it may, Sullivan’s songs are little-enough known so that the very well-performed and generously proportioned two-CD set from Chandos is extremely welcome for anyone interested in less-familiar (and admittedly lesser) Sullivania. There is almost two-and-a-half hours of music here, and listening to the recording straight through is well-nigh impossible: these songs were mostly intended as individual pieces, and almost all come across better that way. That said, there are two cycles here that are of considerable interest: Five Shakespeare Songs (1866) and The Window; or, the Songs of the Wrens (1871), to words by Alfred, Lord Tennyson – ones that the poet laurate understandably decided after writing them that he would have preferred to retract (Sullivan would not hear of it). In addition to Tennyson, Sullivan favored lyrics by the short-lived Lionel H. Lewin (1848-1874) and a scattering of better-known literary figures: Victor Hugo, Robert Burns, Percy Bysshe Shelley. He also wrote songs to Biblical texts and in several languages: “Oh! ma charmante,” with words by Hugo, is the 1872 French version of a song that also appeared in Italian in 1873 as “Oh! bella mia” and in English in 1874 as “Sweet Dreamer.” Confused though the pedigree and enumeration of Sullivan’s songs may be, the one thing that this fine recording makes clear is that the composer was quite sensitive to whatever words he chose to set. The songs are scarcely trailblazing in expressiveness, harmony or overall construction, but they are without exception written to fit the words, emphasizing the verbal meanings and building upon the feelings and descriptions evoked by the language. In his collaborations with Gilbert, Sullivan was often frustrated at the primacy that the words seemed to receive over the music (shades of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio!). In these songs, though, he seems to have achieved a balance that he deemed suitable: Sullivan wrote songs from 1855, when he was just 13, until the year of his death, 1900, and would surely not have continued doing so had he been dissatisfied with the expressive potential created by words and music together. It is true that nothing in this generous helping of well-sung, well-played music will dislodge the impression that Sullivan was at his best when paired with Gilbert (who provided the words for only one of the songs heard here). But it is also true that this recording shows Sullivan to be a composer whose skills did not lie only on the stage or only in the comic: there is much here that is romantic, delicate, expressive, and simply beautiful.

     If Sullivan tends to be seen as a narrow composer, Nadia Boulanger tends not to be seen as one at all. The long-lived and brilliant pedagogue (1887-1979) was, however, a composer of some note in her earlier life, although she later devoted herself to promoting the music of her younger sister, Lili, and once famously told Gabriel Fauré, “If there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that I wrote useless music.” Yet this self-deprecating appraisal is not so, certainly not on the basis of a new two-CD Delos recording featuring 37 Nadia Boulanger compositions, including 13 that have never been recorded before. What is so is that unlike Lili (1893-1918), who accomplished much compositionally in her short life, Nadia never moved significantly beyond a variety of models with which she clearly felt close kinship. In other words, all the music here is derivative, to a greater or lesser extent, and all of it has a recognizable resemblance to the music of other, much-better-known composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the Sullivan set, this one offers a generous amount of music – nearly two hours – but little that is likely to keep listeners returning for additional hearings. Nadia’s 26 songs sound very much like the work of Debussy, occasionally shaded not with any highly personal style but with a soupçon of Saint-Saëns and touch of Franck. Nadia was also clearly familiar with Russian composers of the late-Romantic era; and although less prone than Sullivan to settings in multiple languages, she did write three songs to German words – but without anything particularly Germanic in the settings themselves. The performers handle the material admirably and idiomatically, but nothing here is particularly striking or, indeed, especially original in sound or setting: the music is not bad but merely ordinary. As for the instrumental works, those for piano are Vers la vie nouvelle and Trois pièces pour piano; there are also Trois pièces for cello and piano; and, for organ, Trois improvisations and Pièce sur des airs populaires flamands. Although these are not easy works, none of them is especially difficult; all come across as occasional pieces, the occasions perhaps being practice sessions for some of Boulanger’s more-advanced students. The last organ work connects to an opportunity missed in this recording, for although these pieces represent Nadia’s complete works in these specific forms, they are not all the music she wrote. In particular, in 1912, Nadia wrote a flamboyant and rather silly six-movement work called Fantasie (variée) for piano and orchestra – one that goes well beyond the rather mild “airs populaires flamands” in the solo-organ piece to produce a work somewhat on the order of Ernő Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Tune, and written in something of the same thumbing-one’s-nose-at-the-world spirit. It is unfair to criticize this release for what it does not include, but the reality is that Nadia’s Fantasie (variée) shows a far less serious and sober, far less academic side of the famous teacher, and one that it would have been delightful to experience along with the well-made but ultimately rather nondescript items offered here. Perhaps an enterprising recording company will decide to present, at some point, a CD containing Nadia’s Fantasie (variée), Dohnányi’s Variations, Shostakovich’s arrangement of Tea for Two, and a few other works in the same spirit. That would be a spirited release indeed.

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